India: Meditation & Yoga

Yoga, Meditation & Ashram:

Most first-time visitors to India opt for a cocktail - temples, trekking, palaces, wildlife parks, beaches, and, to balance the indulgences and hedonism, a spiritual element in whatever form. From basic yoga and pranayama classes to residential meditation retreats, India has no equal in terms of tradition and opportunity.

Yoga is taught virtually everywhere in India and there are several internationally known yoga centres where you can train to become a teacher. Meditation is similarly practised all over the country and specific courses are available in temples, meditation centres, monasteries and ashrams. Ashrams are communities where people work, live and study together, drawn by a common, usually spiritual, goal. Adopting a guru is a completely different experience to simply attending a few classes, and whether you choose to do so will ultimately depend on your deep personal commitment and on how comfortable you feel being around a specific guru, but be careful in your choice.

Details of yoga and meditation courses and ashrams are provided throughout the guide. Most centres offer courses that you can enrol on at short notice, but many of the more popular ones need to be booked well in advance.

The word yoga literally means "to unite" and the aim of the discipline is to help the practitioner unite his or her individual consciousness with the divine. This is achieved by raising awareness of one's self through spiritual, mental and physical discipline. Hatha yoga is based on physical postures called asanas , and although the most popular form in the West, it is traditionally just the first step leading to more subtle stages of meditation which commence when the energies of the body have been awakened and sensitized by stretching and relaxing. Other forms of yoga include raja yoga, which includes moral discipline and bhakti yoga, the yoga of devotion, which entails a commitment to one's guru or teacher. Jnana yoga (the yoga of knowledge) is centred around the deep philosophies that underlie Hindu spiritual thinking; the greatest body of Hindu philosophic treatises are known as the Upanishads (c.1000 BC) which came to be embodied in the philosophical discipline of Vedanta. Rishikesh and Varanasi , both in Uttar Pradesh, are the two traditional centres for yoga, but numerous institutions throughout the country have good teachers and advanced practitioners. In many of the travellers' haunts such as Pushkar, Dharamsala, Goa, and Kovalam, posters in cafés advertise local teachers, although many offer dubious qualifications and may well be seasonal. Ask other tourists for a teacher of quality and repute, or ask the teacher if you can do a trial session.

Meditation is often practised after a session of yoga, when the energy of the body has been awakened, and is an essential part of both Hindu and Buddhist practice. In both religions, meditation is considered the most powerful tool for understanding the true nature of mind and self, an essential step on the path to enlightenment. In Vedanta , meditation's aim is to realize the true self as non-dual Brahman or godhead - the foundation of all consciousness and life. Moksha (or liberation - the Nirvana of the Buddhists), achieved through disciplines of yoga and meditation, eventually helps believers release the soul from endless cycles of birth and rebirth.

Vipassana meditation is a technique originally taught by the Buddha, whereby practitioners learn to become more aware of physical sensations and mental processes. Courses last for a minimum of ten days and are austere - involving 4am kick-offs, around ten hours of meditation a day, no solid food after noon, segregation of the sexes, and no talking for the duration (except with the leaders of the course). Courses are free for all first-time students, to allow everyone an opportunity to learn and benefit from the technique. Vipassana is taught in more than 25 centres throughout India including in Bodhgaya, Bangalore, Chennai, Hyderabad and Jaipur.

Tibetan Buddhist meditation is attracting more and more followers around the world. With its four distinct schools, Tibetan Buddhism incorporates a huge variety of meditation practices, including Vipassana, known as shiné in Tibetan, and various visualization techniques involving the numerous deities that make up the complex and colourful Tibetan pantheon. India, with its large Tibetan diaspora, has become a major centre for those wanting to study Tibetan Buddhism and medicine. Dharamsala in Himachal Pradesh, home to the Dalai Lama and Tibetan government-in-exile, is the main centre for Tibetan studies, offering numerous opportunities for one-on-one study with the Tibetan monks and nuns who live there. Other major Tibetan diaspora centres in India include Darjeeling in West Bengal and Bylakuppe near Mysore in Karnataka. For further details of courses available locally, see the relevant sections of the guide.

Ashrams can range in size from several thousand people to just a handful, and their rules, regulations and restrictions vary enormously. Some offer on-site accommodation, others will require you to stay in the nearest town or village. Some charge Western prices, others local prices, and some simply operate on a donation basis. Many ashrams run specific courses and have set programmes each day including meditation and bhakti yoga, while others are less structured, providing self-study facilities and offering guidance and teaching as and when requested.

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